China's best known artist, looking thinner after 81 days in detention, says 'I'm fine ... I'm on bail. Please understand'.

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
  • 23 june 2011

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This article titled “Ai Weiwei released from detention” was written by Tania Branigan, for The Guardian on Wednesday 22nd June 2011 20.21 UTC

After 81 days in detention, China’s best-known artist, Ai Weiwei, returned home a considerably thinner and noticeably quieter man.

“I’m fine. I’m out,” the 54-year-old artist told the Guardian in a telephone call shortly after his release on bail. “I’m back with my family. I’m very happy.”

The state news agency, Xinhua, said police had released him “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes” and a chronic illness.

Speaking from his home in north Beijing, the usually outspoken artist said he could not comment any further, adding: “I’m on bail. Please understand.”

Ai’s sister Gao Ge said: “I’m very, very happy … we thank everyone, including our media friends, for all their help and support so far.”

His mother, Gao Ying, told NPR that the family “won’t sleep tonight”.

The artist’s disappearance on 3 April sparked international condemnation, with political leaders calling for his release and sustained protests throughout the art world. He vanished after he was stopped by officials at Beijing airport, where he was due to board a flight to Hong Kong.

Officials later said police were investigating him on suspicion of economic crimes, although police never formally notified his family of his detention, which they are supposed to do within a day of seizing a suspect.

The Xinhua report on Ai’s release said: “The decision comes also in consideration of the fact that Ai has repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded, police said. The Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, a company Ai controlled, was found to have evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents, police said.”

Ai’s works include helping design the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing and last year’s Sunflower Seeds installation in Tate Modern’s turbine hall. But he has become as well known for his activism as for his art – although he suggested it was not easy to draw a line between the two.

He is the most high profile of dozens of activists and dissidents arrested, detained or harassed in recent months in what campaigners called China’s most severe crackdown on human rights in over a decade. Several are still held and many of those who have been freed are understood to have been released under strict conditions.

The decision to bail Ai comes days before Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visits Europe, where leaders were expected to press the case for the release. It is impossible to know whether the events are connected. Although China has often released dissidents on the eve of major political visits, it has not done so recently.

A message on the official Twitter feed for the EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, read: “Happy to learn that Ai Weiwei has been released.”

Ai’s only contact with the outside world during his detention – a brief 20-minute visit by his wife Lu Qing – was arranged by police on the eve of Van Rompuy’s visit to China last month.

At the time Lu said he had looked mentally conflicted and tense despite appearing to be in good physical health and receiving treatment for diabetes and high blood pressure.

Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, welcomed Ai’s release.

“His detention was political and his release is political. It is the result of a huge domestic and international outcry that forced the government to this resolution … I think Beijing realised how damaging it was to hold China’s most famous artist in detention,” he said.

Although in theory police are able to take further action on a case for up to a year after a suspect is bailed, in practice detainees who are released do not usually face trial unless they are judged to have reoffended.

Bequelin said Ai would probably have to report to police and would probably not be allowed to travel abroad without official permission.

US state department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told a news conference: “It’s always a good thing when an individual who is only in prison for exercising his internationally recognised human rights is released.” Speaking before Ai’s release, Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said it “would be a big relief for the artist and his family, even though the reported circumstances of his release on bail continue to appear depressing”.

Patrick Poon, executive secretary of the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, tweeted: “It’s ‘good news’ for Ai Weiwei and for all of us who support Ai Weiwei and other human rights defenders, but the Chinese government’s handling of Ai Weiwei’s case once again proves that China is miles away from the real ‘rule of law’.”

The Chinese government has said Ai’s case was nothing to do with human rights, while his family believed it was retaliation for his social and political activism.

But some human rights campaigners thought the economic allegations offered officials room for manoeuvre, whereas they would not have felt able to drop political charges.

Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific deputy director, said: “Ai Weiwei must now be granted his full liberty, and not be held in illegal house arrest as has been the pattern with so many others recently released from arbitrary detention.”

She also called for the immediate release of his four associates – Wen Tao, one of his friends, Zhang Jinsong, his driver and cousin, Hu Mingfen, an accountant, and Liu Zhenggang, a designer – who went missing shortly after him. Wen’s girlfriend Shi Jing, who had volunteered at Ai’s studio, said: “For both [Ai’s] friends and family, it is positive news.

“As for Wen Tao, his family hasn’t got any information so far … I still feel anxious, but since Ai is going to be bailed, there will probably be information about the others. They got into this because of Ai’s case, so there should also be news about them.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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